Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘thomas’

Community within, Community Expressed

Sense8 is an original TV series streaming on Netflix, created by the Wachowskis, the two people behind the Matrix trilogy. Sense8, a play on the sensate, tells the story of eight strangers: Capheus, Sun, Nomi, Kala, Riley, Wolfgang, Lito and Will, each from a different culture and part of the world. As the story develops, all eight characters have visions and find strange connections to the others even though they are all worlds apart. They realize that they are all sensates, humans like anyone else except for the fact that they are linked with a mental and emotional connection, allowing them to sense and communicate with each other, as well as share their knowledge, language and skills. The eight sensates try to live their lives and figure out how and why this connection has happened and what it means.

Here are the eight sensate characters in the story:

sense8
Capheus,
a matatu driver in Nairobi, a passionate fan of movie star Jean-Claude Van Damme, and a son who is trying to earn money to buy AIDS medicine for his mother.

Sun Bak
, daughter of a powerful Seoul, Korea businessman and a star in the underground kickboxing world.

Nomi Marks,
a trans woman hacktivist and blogger living in San Francisco with her girlfriend Amanita. She was born Michael but changed her name to Nomi, which stands for “Know Me”.

Kala Dandekar
, a university-educated pharmacist and devout Hindu living in Mumbai, India. She is  engaged to marry a man she does not love.

Riley Blue,
an Icelandic DJ living in London.

Wolfgang Bogdanow,
a Berlin, Germany locksmith and safe-cracker who has unresolved issues with his late father and participates in organized crime.

Lito Rodriguez,
a gay, closeted actor from Bilbao, Spain living in Mexico City with his boyfriend Hernando.

And Will Gorski, a Chicago police officer haunted by an unsolved murder from his childhood.

In the story, the sensates represent the next step in human evolution. Their brains have subtly but powerfully changed so that they are able to connect with each other across long distances without being detected or listened to. They can have conversations in two places simultaneously, flipping back and forth between a rainy café in Germany and a sunny temple in India, while a character in Korea vapes with a character in Iceland. They seem to be physically in the same place as the others, having a face to face conversation. A common phrase for the sensates becomes:

“I am also a we.”

I wish to explore this idea of deep connection—how it is on the inside and then how it can be expressed on the outside. Have you ever felt a deep connection with someone you just recently met? How did it feel? What did that connection lead to? And, do you ever have the experience of feeling disconnected, even from people you have known nearly your whole life? See, connection is not about longevity; it’s not even about having things in common, looking the same, or sharing all the same perspectives. Connection, I argue, is an energy. It is an energy between people, between us, when we feel that we have been seen, heard, and valued as we are. Connection is that energy that fills us when we are not judged, when we are truly seen and valued.

I’ve mentioned this many times before, but it’s worth saying again. In this life, it is really important to pursue and nurture relationships/connections with people who value you, who see and hear you and accept you, as you are. That most likely means that you will have these types of strong connections with only a handful of other humans and that’s fine. Hey, the characters in Sense8 are only deeply connected to seven others. The energy of connection in our relationships is vital to our health.

The language and concept of connection is obvious in the Jesus of John’s Gospel. Jesus is portrayed in various I AM statements, and all of those identity statements lead us right back to the idea of connection. Jesus said I AM the vine and you are the branches. Straight up connection talk there. And now here in John 14 we find Jesus talking about dwelling places, though not your typical house or apartment. Jesus speaks here of a realm of dwelling beyond the brick and mortar. Dwelling in Abba God’s house is not heaven—it is the presence of God, and it goes both ways like a swinging door of connection. If God dwells in you, then you also dwell in God’s house. And vice versa. The place, the connection for all of us has already been prepared; it is simply up to us to embrace it.

And then the Jesus of John takes it one step further, or maybe in this case, Jesus humanizes it even more, because our good friend Thomas is still asking great questions. Thomas asks the how question and Jesus responds with love and care. How will you know the way to this connection? Well, I AM way, I AM truth, I AM life. No one comes to the light, to the connected Divine, to God, except through path, truth, and life. If you know your path, and truth, and life, then you will know the Divine. And from now on you do know, and you have seen.

Wonderful and beautiful language, but of course I have to mention [albeit briefly] that this beautiful part of John’s Gospel can also be negative trigger for some. Why? Because sadly some make it a habit of taking words from the Gospels attributed to Jesus and turning them into clobber texts, exclusive religious dogma, or even opportunities to say to some people they don’t like that they are doomed and that God doesn’t love them. Rather than spend more time on those who use this as a clobber text, I prefer to focus on what the text actually says within its context, also considering the audience it was written to. Keep in mind that John’s Gospel is the most inclusive Gospel writing, apart from the Gospel of Timothy, probably. John is a text written for a mixed group of people. It’s meant to open up the message of Jesus to a wider audience. It verges on universality sometimes. It’s often ambiguously symbolic and even combines different religious traditions. But John’s Gospel is not exclusive. Jesus’ I AM statements, each one of them, are meant to invite and include more human beings. Many rooms in Abba’s house, remember?

So this oft-quoted phrase about way, truth, and life is not a claim that Christianity [which didn’t exist at the time, by the way] is the one true faith and that Jesus is the only way to God. It doesn’t say that. The word only just isn’t there. What IS there is a kind and loving invitation to be connected in a deep and powerful way. Be connected to Jesus/God/the Divine/the Light, however you wish to call it, but be connected to this way, truth, and life, which is the power greater than all of us that connects us across genders, orientations, cultures, languages religions, countries, and differences. This connection is love and compassion—practicing that in our everyday lives. Seeing and hearing people as they are. Accepting them. Seeking and nurturing this connective energy gives us purpose and meaning in life. What do you think?

 

Are You Sure?

John 20:19-29

yesnomaybeWe are all unique and thus, the ways we see the world vary. There is one thing, however, that we can all probably agree upon. At some point, all of us have had moments when we doubted. You know what I mean—it can even be simple. You are in the grocery store and you’re staring at twenty different kinds milk and you’re just not sure which one you should purchase.

milkchoicesAlmond? Coconut? Soy? Low fat, skim, whole, organic? And which brand? So you stare and stare at the milks and the doubt creeps in. People keep walking by and giving you weird looks, but they just don’t understand. Too many milks! Because of their leering gaze you rush to finally decide on unsweetened almond milk, but as you collapse exhausted in your car you’re honestly not really sure that you made the best choice.

Okay, so that’s a superficial example, but there are obviously many, many examples that are much deeper and important. Have you ever doubted some of the bigger decisions like which school should I attend? Should I quit my job and start fresh? Should I move? Should I make myself vulnerable with this person, not knowing if they will accept my feelings or reject them? Should I date, should I get married, should I have kids? Should I get divorced? Should I come out to my parents and coworkers? Should I ever do any of these things? Doubt is part of life. It is part of our human makeup.

When we doubt, we question things. And people. It’s not about always having a conspiracy theory for everything, though, it’s critical thinking. When we ask how did something come to be or how did I get this idea we are engaging our brains in an active dialogue that leads to growth and perspective. Doubt also helps us see the bigger picture and initiates progress, because when we doubt, we question the current state of things and wonder: can it get better than this? It’s questioning the status quo.

Of course, there is such a thing as healthy and unhealthy doubt. Unhealthy doubt, according to psychologists and behavioral therapists, is driven by anxiety and moods. It’s kneejerk. It demands absolute certainty and is not supported by sense evidence. It is often self-defeating. Feelings are accepted as facts, even if actual facts contradict our feelings. Unhealthy doubt is about “what if” scenarios—most likely imagining the worst-case scenario.

Healthy doubt, on the other hand, asks questions and searches for evidence in a scientific manner, rather than being driven by anxiety or moods. When no solid evidence is found, skepticism ends and there is not an attempt to override it.  Healthy doubt is relaxed and reasonable.

skepticism-is-healthy-doubt-when-faced-with-lack-of-credible-8760996So let’s pause for a moment. Ask yourself: can I think of examples of times when I have doubted in an unhealthy way? Can I think of times when I doubted in a healthy way?

And now, a story all about doubt—both unhealthy and healthy.

The author of the Gospel of John tells us that it was evening, just after the death of Jesus of Nazareth, and all the doors of Jesus’ best friends were locked. They were afraid, anxious, and locked up. They doubted, most likely, all of what they had seen and heard with their teacher Jesus. Would the Roman authorities come for them next?

Unhealthy doubt closed their doors. But Jesus offered them something else—peace. Shalom, wholeness be yours. Then he breathed on them to remind them to forgive each other and move forward. They saw his wounded hands and side. Apparently, they needed to see.

But someone was missing. Thomas. Oft-called doubting Thomas wasn’t locked up. He was out. And he didn’t see Jesus appear, didn’t hear the double shalom, didn’t see the hands and side, didn’t get breathed on and told to forgive. And so, knowing that his colleagues were scared, anxious, and doubtful, Thomas refused to believe them without evidence. Why should he? Prove it.

Then, it was a week later.
Thomas was there with the others and Jesus appears. Shalom again, but directly to Thomas, telling him to reach out and touch the wounded hands and side. And Thomas decided to not touch anything.

In my view, Thomas engaged in healthy doubt, while his friends did not. He used the scientific method to arrive at evidence. He did not accept anxious, fearful conclusions and rationalizations. He asked: How do I know that this is really my teacher Jesus? And by asking that, he opened up to a healthy doubt that led to wholeness and growth.

So let’s ask the questions again: when have you doubted in an unhealthy way? And now, when have you doubted in healthy ways?

Room in the Tomb, Room for Doubt

John 20:19-29

empty-easter-basket-green-grass-white-13295986The tomb is still empty. Really, it is.
The peeps have been eaten [or at least mostly eaten], the baskets emptied of their sugary substances and plastic grass, and the Easter egg hunts are a distant memory. It’s the week after, and the tomb is still empty.

candyComaIn Luke’s Gospel story, a group of women discovered an empty tomb and no body, and two guys in shiny, white clothes [apparently part of some Elvis impersonator caravan]. And they were happy, because they were told that Jesus was no longer dead in the tomb. So they rushed to their friends the disciples, and told them, and were met with sarcasm and rebuttal. They were called foolish. Only one of the men, Peter, decided to make his way to the tomb, and of course, when he did, it was empty.
Now we shift to John’s story, so put on your seatbelts. We’re not in Luke-Kansas anymore!

John sets the stage for us and says that it’s evening, and all the doors of the disciples’ house are locked. They were afraid, not of the Jews in general [because that would include most of them], but afraid of the religious and political authorities who they felt were out there looking for any followers of this Jesus of Nazareth who had died. Add to that the fact that the body of Jesus had gone missing, and well, the disciples didn’t want anything to do with that. They were keeping their heads down.

But, in the all-of-a-sudden, freaky-John style, Jesus appears out of nowhere. He says: Shalom, peace be with you, and then shows them his hands and his side. The disciples are happy about this whole seeing Jesus again thing. This was pretty cool. After all, to this point, they had done nothing but deny, run away, and betray. And then they locked themselves inside their house after the women disciples told them that the body was missing. And now. Jesus was here! Great.

Like a broken record, Jesus says Shalom again. And: As the Father has sent me, so I send you.
Then Jesus breathes on them [though I don’t imagine some weird, awkward breathing like when you eat garlicy food and want your friend to smell your breath].

bad-breath4

I imagine a more symbolic sort of breath like in Genesis’ creation story. A breath that gives life or purpose. Perhaps a breath to help them remember? The women already did remember the things that Jesus said and did. But these disciples, because they were afraid, had forgotten.  Well, here comes the answer to our question about the whole breathing thing, because John’s author tells us that Jesus then said:

Receive the Holy Spirit. And forgive.
In that breath is God’s Spirit and that Spirit is one of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Anyone at this point wondering if this whole forgiveness part was needed by these particular disciples? I mean, really, their track record wasn’t all that great. I wonder if that statement about forgiving others was also about forgiving themselves. Either way, we’re not given much time to think about it, because the most interesting disciple outside of Mary Magdalene [in my opinion], takes center stage.

Thomas!

thomastrain

And not the train!
Thomas, the doubter! Yes! Welcome back! How we missed you…

First, he’s called Thomas the twin, and here’s what I will say about that. He has no named twin so, you and I could very likely be his twin. That’s literary device at its best. We are meant to be with Thomas here.
He didn’t see Jesus appear, He didn’t hear the double shalom, he didn’t see the hands and side. He didn’t get breathed on or told to forgive. He was out.
Was Thomas less afraid than the others?
Or was he just unlucky?
We don’t know. But we do know that Thomas was not buying this whole “we’ve seen the Lord” thing. Yeah right. These fearful, cowering men had seen Jesus? Prove it.

The story flips forward about a week later.

Well, this time Thomas is there with the others and Jesus appears again. Peace be with you again, but then Jesus speaks directly to Thomas, telling him to touch his hands and side—not just to see them. But Thomas doesn’t touch anything. After only seeing, he makes a proclamation: My Lord and my God! It’s a statement of allegiance, because this same phrase was said to Caesar by his loyal Roman subjects at that time.

And then Jesus says: Have you [trusted] because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to [faith].

I changed belief in both cases to trusted and faith due to a confusing translation from Koine Greek to English. I’ve mentioned this before, but often in our English Bibles, the word belief appears, and in my opinion, it is a lazy/Western biased translation that does not take into account the many possible meanings and nuances of the original word.

Belief is absolute certainty in something that you know to be true and is not at all tied to spirituality or religious practice—at least it wasn’t until much, much later in history. Trust and faith, however, are two words that appear often in the New Testament and carry with them much larger meanings than just believing that something is true.

I’ve come across so many people who assume that because I am a Christian, I believe this or that or the other thing, or what that thing says on TV or what that person says, and with complete certainty. Of course, when I tell them that I don’t believe in more than half of the stuff they said do, they are confused.

Why?
Because many people, including Christians, assume that faith is belief.
As I’ve mentioned before, the word faith in John’s Gospel is a verb, not a noun.
Faith is not just an idea in your head about a certain thing [whether it’s true or false]. Faith is more like an orientation of your whole self. If someone “faiths” something, she puts her whole self into it—mind, body, and spirit. Faith includes trust.
So as we’re standing in the empty tomb, left to wonder what happened, or if we find ourselves in Thomas’ shoes, doubting the whole thing, is that so bad?

No, of course not. Doubt is goooooood……

Have you ever thought [or said]:

I’m going through a time in which I don’t think God exists.

Do you feel guilty or strange about it? Well don’t! Embrace that thought.

In Brian McLaren’s recent book, Finding Faith, he says that his doubts keep him moving and that doubt can be a doorway to spiritual and personal growth. In terms of his own personal thoughts about God, McLaren has “sifted and re-sifted, and some beliefs [he’s] had to release, while others have proven themselves as ‘keepers.’”[1]

I don’t think doubt is really the problem. I think an unwillingness to question belief is a problem, because consider: isn’t holding onto a belief out of a sense of false security a very dangerous concept? I would say, look around the world, and the answer is a big, fat, YES.

Because if we’re convinced that doubt is “bad” and not something so common, we don’t allow for the possibility of mistakes or misjudgments. Instead, our so-certain belief system becomes a rigid, intolerant and self-righteous existence.

Freedom to doubt, however, helps us to deepen, clarify, and even explain certain aspects of our spirituality and of our day to day lives.

So friends, there is room for your doubt and plenty of it. Embrace it and allow it to challenge certain belief systems and perspectives that may be doing you harm. From experience, I can tell you that if you do that honestly and at your own speed, like Thomas you will encounter healing, reconciliation, and a rejuvenated enthusiasm for more exploration.

Thanks, Thomas.

We all needed that.

[1] Brian McLaren “Doubt: The Tides of Faith”

 

Asking Good Questions

John 14:1-14

Kids are great at asking questions. It’s true, and this constant inquiry helps children make sense of the world and also helps them figure out how to navigate the things happening all around them.

Studies show that when we are four or five years old, we ask the most questions. As we get older, we ask less and less questions.

I was thinking about this and it’s true—teachers, bosses, authority figures [even clergy]—do not really encourage us to ask more questions.

They want answers.

This is too bad, of course. Because as we get older, we are really just older kids. And questions can help us explore, be creative and innovative, and like the four-year-old, questions can help us to make sense of this crazy world and even navigate all the issues that come up.

To start asking questions again, we need to look around us and see the world with curious, observant eyes. We need to think like a child and actually find imagination and curiosity [even about things we think we already know]. And we’ve got to leave behind the attitude about “why” questions. “Why” questions may seem naïve or too childish. Why do we drink water out of glasses? Why do we refrigerate food? Why is the sky up and the ground down? Why am I breathing right now? Why, why, why?

But the why questions go deep and surpass conventional thinking and reach for opportunities that seem impossible and far away.

Why?

Okay, so I’ll admit that the why questions can get monotonous and the four-year-old can keep asking why as if she’s in a samsara circle, but you are the one suffering. Stop asking why!!!!!!

So perhaps good questions move from why to what if and how?

This is what Warren Berger argues in his book, A More Beautiful Question: the Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas.

questionsberger

Berger writes that questioners can move forward on almost any problem or challenge by first trying to understand it [why is this a problem?]

Then, they imagine possible solutions [what if I approached the problem this way, or that way?] And finally, the questioner can try to figure out practical ways to turn the “what if” ideas into realities [how might I actually begin to make this happen?]

But it’s not about easy answers. Being thoughtful and productive in our questioning takes effort, time, lots of thought, and of course—experimenting, making mistakes, learning.[1]

I am convinced that the more we ask questions, the better we live.

Each time when we feel stuck in life, we have an opportunity to ask a question:

Why am I stuck?

It may sound superficial and be a “duh” kind of question, but ask it anyway.

And then:

What if…

This is when we imagine not being stuck. What does that look like and feel like?

And finally:

How can I make this happen?

The “this” is the imagined thing that can lift us out of our feeling stuck.

So we have to ask questions—even about things we think we know well.

And John 14 is a passage many people think they know well.

Before you say: But I don’t know this John 14 well at all! What does it say?

John 14 says this:

I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.

Right. Any questions?

Sounds like a definitive answer, does it not?
Jesus is telling us [and the whole, wide world] that he is the one and that no one can find God except through him.

Here is the main argument for imperialistic Christianity in one sentence.
Here is the dominant religion throwing its weight around.

But I have a question.

If Jesus was giving an answer here, who asked a question?

Aha!

Thomas, question-asker-extraordinaire.

The John text actually reads: Jesus said to him.

To Thomas.

Thomas had heard Jesus’ pretty speech about going to the Father and preparing a house there so do not be troubled and blah, blah, blah, and I’ll prepare a nice studio apt. for you guys to hang out in and just believe it, okay?

But Thomas, like an inquisitive four-year-old, asks the where question that the other disciples were not willing to ask:

Jesus, where are you going?

At this point, are the other disciples looking around, dumbfounded, feeling embarrassed about Thomas’ stupid question?

WHERE ARE YOU GOING?!

Man, Thomas, wake up! Of course, Jesus is going…
Well, right. Where WAS Jesus going?

Uh, good question, Thomas.

These stories in the Gospels were written after Jesus died, so the author of course knew what was going to happen. Betrayal, arrest, death, burial, resurrection appearance.

But Thomas didn’t know, of course.
So the question was valid and it was wonderful.

Where are you going?

Give me a map, Jesus, because I want to go, too.
Or punch in the directions on my GPS.
Or Whatsapp me when you get there and take a pic of the place so I can find it.

Where are you going?

But Thomas’ next question is even better.

How can we know the way?

He is rewarded with a deep and impactful answer.

Just like when he said I am the good shepherd, Jesus answered Thomas by saying: I am the way. I am the truth. I am the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

Thomas, to answer your question, the where is not concrete.

It’s a way and not a destination.
It’s a truth and not an easy, comfortable solution.
It’s a life and not a fear-filled existence.

And you won’t find your way, truth, and life by looking at a map.
Just follow me there.

There’s a real connection here to the Hebrew Scriptures—specifically the book of Deuteronomy 1:33, which says: “the Lord goes before you on the way to choose a place.” Thomas and the disciples knew all about the story of Moses and the Israelites journeying to the Promised Land. This following Jesus thing was about the journey itself, and not really about the destination.

But meanwhile, another disciple, Phillip, opens his mouth, but does not ask a question. He says: Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.

Not really interested in following the way, seeking the truth, and living the life, are you, Phillip?
You see, Phillip could have learned from Thomas, as all of us should.

Ask a question, no matter how stupid or naïve or childish it sounds.

Ask a question!

So look—life is tough. It really is. There are situations that seem hopeless. There are problems that seem insurmountable. There are moments when we just want to give up.

So ask why questions. Ask like a child.

Then move to the what if.

Then, move to the how.

And expect deep, insightful, and challenging answers. Don’t expect cookie-cutter solutions and easy fixes. Expect creativity and innovation. Expect change. And expect a journey, a way, a path that leads to truths and a path that leads to life.

Friends, don’t stop asking questions.

 

 

[1] Berger, Warren, A More Beautiful Question, Bloomsbury, NY, 2014.

Embracing Doubt and Breathing Life

John 20:19-31

philomena fieldThe movie Philomena is based on the 2009 investigative book by British Broadcasting Corporation [BBC] correspondent Martin Sixsmith, entitled, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. Philomena Lee, played by Judi Dench, is an older woman searching for her long-lost son. When Philomena was a young woman living in an Irish-Catholic community, she gave birth to the baby boy, only to have the child taken from her at an early age. The nuns sold the boy to a U.S. couple for adoption.

Philomena was forced, according to church doctrine, to sign a contract that wouldn’t allow for any sort of inquiry into her son’s whereabouts. But Philomena never stopped thinking about her son, and so thus, when she meets Martin Sixsmith [played by Steve Coogan], and he wishes to publish and investigative report of her story, the two of them embark on a quest to find her son.

Here is a clip from the movie:

The film and story of Philomena includes a rigorous examination of faith and belief. Philomena and Martin were both raised Roman Catholic, but Martin is an atheist and Philomena holds on to her beliefs about the church and her faith in God. Martin is perplexed by this, considering all the great evils that were done to Philomena and countless others by the church, in the name of God. How could someone who knew of all the evils of the church continue to be so steadfast?

It is worth watching—at the very least, to stimulate thought and conversation about two words:

Faith and Belief

Most people often think that the most important thing to understand about religion is:

Why do people believe in God?

Most people assume that belief comes before action and therefore explains choices. So, in other words, you believe something first; that belief causes you to do something.

But in fact, most people, when thinking about belief, are off-base.

Let me explain.

Belief is a principle, a proposition, an idea that you accept as true. It could be an opinion, a religious doctrine—whatever.

Case in point: close your eyes, everyone.
Imagine the color green.

Now red.

Now yellow.

Now…magenta.

How about saffron?

I cannot get inside your head and actually see how you imagined those colors, but I can tell you this:

All of us imagined the colors a bit differently.

Your green may have been darker or light than mine. Your yellow may have been closer to red or orange. Your magenta and your saffron? It depends on whether or not you ever “saw” those colors in a book, in a painting, or used that particular crayon.

This is belief. You were taught and conditioned. This is what you believe.

Belief is what we think we know to be true.

Okay, now faith. This is trust or confidence in something or someone without necessarily having concrete evidence.

The Greek language of the New Testament of the Bible seems to use these words faith and belief interchangeably. But in this case, prepositions matter.

We can believe a million things about something or someone.

But how much do we have faith in something? How much do we trust?

That is why I argue that we have to be very careful about belief, because people can believe anything! And sometimes, like in the case of Philomena, extreme, stubborn belief in something can lead to awful behavior.

But faith, on the other hand, isn’t about being stubborn.
Why? Because faith is mixed with doubt.

Let me say that again.

Faith is mixed with doubt.

Theologian Frederick Buechner once said:

Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.[1]

I love that! Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.

So with ants in our pants, let’s explore Thomas’ story.

doubting-thomas-cartoon

Jesus died recently. The disciples are locked up behind closed doors, hiding from the authorities. But keep in mind that the male disciples were more scared than the female disciples who were brave enough to visit Jesus’ tomb. Who were they scared of? Well, the Judean authorities and the Temple aristocracy, and perhaps the Romans, too. They were so scared, in fact, that they did not believe Mary Magdalene’s story about meeting the Jesus with a green thumb [i.e. a gardener].

Lucky for them, Jesus appears. Jesus greets them with Peace be with you, which as I’ve mentioned before, really means shalom, which means wholeness as a gift of God. Then Jesus shows his hands and side. They rejoice because they see him. Then he breathes on them. After the breath that resembles the Creator breathing life into humanity, Jesus talks about forgiveness.

I like this translation of verse 23 from Eugene Peterson’s The Message:

 If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good.

If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?

Seems to be Jesus telling the disciples to stop being afraid. Seems like faith, in this sense, is about unlocking the doors and going outside.

But then again, John’s Gospel story is yet to introduce Thomas.

Yes, Thomas, was outside the locked doors, like the women were, and so he did not see this Jesus appearance. And Thomas was not one to believe something just because everyone else did. He was a skeptic. He knew that Jesus died. Why would he believe something that these scared guys told him? They were most likely delusional.

Then John’s story skips ahead; it’s a week later.

Jesus magically walks through a wall again and repeats the wholeness blessing. But then Jesus talks to Thomas, telling him to touch his hands and side. But he doesn’t’ do it. Instead, the skeptic Thomas says: My Lord and my God!

Jesus closes with:

Have you believed because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

And don’t miss the last part of John’s story, reminding us to whom this Gospel is addressing.
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe[d] that Jesus is the Messiah,[e] the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

a: or continue to believe

e: or Christ

The story is for all the skeptics—the ones who don’t see and don’t believe.

This is a story of faith, because after the resurrection appearances, these women and men were supposed to live resurrected lives themselves. They had faith in the presence of G-d, faith in the power of love to conquer even hate and death.

And even so, these people were so full of doubt.

I really, really like the Thomas story.

But I really, really dislike how many people misquote it and push belief on other people—telling them that this bad thing happens or this will happen to them if they don’t believe a certain thing.

Or, you know, if you are struggling or suffering….

Just have more faith!

But Faith isn’t something to possess.

Belief—sure, you can possess that. It’s what your mind has been conditioned and taught, so yes—your beliefs are in your head and are yours.

But faith is spiritual—beyond doctrines, words on a page, well outside the locked, closed doors of the church!

Faith is trust in and feeling of and action performed.

I myself find great inspiration in the 5th Gospel, ironically called The Gospel of Thomas. It was discovered in 1945 in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. The author and exact date of the Gospel of Thomas is still being researched, but it most certainly is an early Christian writing. It contains only sayings of Jesus. Let me close with two of them, related to faith and belief.

His disciples said, “When will you appear to us, and when will we see you?” Jesus said, “When you strip without being ashamed, and you take your clothes and put them under your feet like little children and trample then, then [you] will see the son of the living one and you will not be afraid.”

Jesus said, “If two make peace with each other in this one house, they will say to the mountain, ‘Move Away,’ and it will move away.”[2]

Friends, don’t get caught up in belief.

Embrace the doubts you have. Embrace the living that is breathed into all.

May your faith and spiritual practice move you to peaceful, loving, and compassionate action in the world.

 

[1] Buechner, Frederick, Wishful Thinking

[2] Gospel of Thomas, Sayings 37 and 48.

Low Expectations and the Power of Touch

  John 20:19-31   

Some of you know that from March 16-23 I decided to participate in a program of the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia and the University of Wisconsin Eau-Claire’s Better Together initiative. The program was called Interfaith Encounters Alternative Spring Break. There were 44 students from the school from around the world, hailing from various cultural and religious backgrounds. Some of the students were Christian [both Protestant and Catholic]; some Muslims; some Hmong shamans; some Hindus; some agnostics; some atheists; a Wiccan; and some Buddhists. A diverse group, to say the least.

BetterTogether

Most of these students have been taking a course at the University called Engaging Religious Pluralism. As part of this class, students learn about other faiths, but do not limit their learning to textbooks and classroom environments. They actually engage people of other faiths and experience their faith practices. The goal is to promote a better understanding across religious lines and to empower younger generations to be interfaith leaders.

Work in pluralism focuses on being curious and engaging. Pluralism is actually not the same thing as tolerance. Tolerance is putting up with someone who is different than you, i.e. I guess I have to sit next to you or share this planet with you. Pluralism goes beyond just tolerating another person, but is an active attempt to understand that person’s worldview.[1]

Pluralism is based on real human encounters that include dialogue and experience.

Of course, this is part of the problem with our world in general. We don’t encounter and engage those who are different than us. We don’t talk, learn, experience, touch, feel, hear, smell, taste, and understand. We watch 30 second clips on TV or read comments on an internet blog. We make judgments about others based on such ridiculous things. And in turn, I would argue that we disconnect ourselves from our own humanity and our own religious practice. By neglecting to encounter and engage our neighbors, we neglect to know ourselves fully. That is why I got involved with this project, and also because I care deeply about younger generations. So much talk these days in Christian circles about how young people do not go to church. What’s happening? People in churches get scared and more protective of their religious territory. Meanwhile, younger generations are less and less interested in faith community. I know this. I’ve studied this. I have experienced this firsthand. So I wanted to spend a week with these students to learn from them.

In our meetings to plan the week, we discussed what types of experiences they wanted to have. We were in agreement. We wanted to experience the religious practice of others. We wanted to put on head scarves, eat the food, take off our shoes, sing and chant, smell and taste, see and touch. How do people pray? How do they bless? What books do they treasure? How does their worldview make them better people and inspire them to cooperate with others? How are we different? How are we the same?

For a week we visited 8 different faith communities: an African Methodist Episcopalian Church, a Sikh Gurdwara, a Hindu and Jain temple, a Won Buddhist temple, a Sufi mosque, a Quaker meeting, a Baha’i devotion, and a Reformed Jewish synagogue. And we also engaged 6 service-learning partners: Heeding God’s Call, Philly POWER, Urban Tree Connection, Philly Food SHARE, Church of the Advocate, and New Sanctuary Movement. It is impossible to express just how much we learned and experienced. If you want to learn more about our week, backtrack to these blog entries.

Today’s message—considering my Interfaith Encounters experience and my experience with John’s Gospel–is about low expectations and the power of touch. I mentioned in my Resurrection Sunday [Easter] message last week that the stories of the Bible don’t mean much unless those stories connect with our own stories. So today, let me share some personal stories with you—about Thomas and Jesus and about my week with UW Eau-Claire students.

Each time I read the Jesus resurrection stories, I am reminded of just how low our expectations have become. The Sunday after Easter is the lowest-attended Sunday of the year. Think about why. We really have low expectations for the Gospel stories. Christmas Eve and Easter stories are mere history, fantasy, or tradition. We rarely encounter them [meaning, we rarely read them], and thus, we rarely engage them [meaning question them]. Because of that, we also have low expectations for God’s Spirit moving through our lives and in the lives of others. We set the bar very low for transcendent experiences and things that change us. We ought to participate in religious practice because it moves us to new places and inspires us to do good.

But we are often disconnected from the stories. Thomas? Disciples behind closed doors? Jesus’ hands and feet? We are more connected to television characters and reality show stories than to these things.

But what if we TOUCH the story? What if the story TOUCHES us? What if we refuse to be content with simply hearing old, old stories and participating in old, old traditions? What if we start to expect great things to happen when we read these stories? When we worship? When we pray? When we learn? When we serve? What if the stories become real in our lives and affect us? What if the stories make us better people, challenge us to be more merciful, push us to love people?

What if our religious practice didn’t stay trapped in a book? Or a tradition? Or a doctrine?

mother-bethel-churchOn Sunday morning at 8:00 a.m. we joined Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church for worship. The service included vibrant music with keyboard, drums, and inspiring vocalists. Even a little dancing! Towards the end of the service, people were invited to pray in the front of the sanctuary. People just came. No theme. No reason other than to pray. Music. Prayers.

Then, something unexpected.

Their prayers do not end with the Lord’s Prayer and an amen. They end with hugs. Strangers, old friends, family—it didn’t matter. A prayer ended with an embrace.

sikh1That same day we were in Lawrenceville, NJ at the Sikh Sabha. As the bus pulled up, Kavi Pannu and other community leadership greeted us in front of the gurudwara and directed us to a well-laid-out carpet where we could remove our shoes;

Youth brought us head scarves and explained how the afternoon would proceed.

We all sat on the carpet together, side by side, touching each other.

sikh2There wasn’t enough room for personal space.

After the prayer service, community members dropped down white cloths; langar meal began.

We ate with our hands—curry and yogurt and beans and rice.

We tasted and smelled and felt.sikh3

On Monday we visited the Bharatiya Hindu Temple in Chalfont.

bhara

After removing our shoes, we were led upstairs. Worshipers entered the prayer space and the three priests present that evening in the temple for Shiva Abhishekam rang bells and chanted songs–waving lit candles in the air. Their songs filled the space. The incense burned. One of the priests started to fling water towards all of us gathered there. We felt the drops. Then, water from the Ganges River was placed in our right hand by the priest. We drank it and received a piece of fruit.

bhara2We heard this from our hosts:

Any religious practice should make us a better person.

But in John’s story, the disciples were locked behind closed doors!

Scared, depressed, and apathetic. Jesus came and offered wholeness to them.

Thomas wasn’t there. Eventually, he had to see for himself. He had to touch in order for this experience to be real. He wasn’t content with a second-hand story. He encountered Jesus; he engaged Jesus. Thomas makes we wonder: what if our religious practice was free and actively moving in the world, capable of risk-taking, open to new perspectives, and not afraid to express doubt? What if atheists and agnostics were encouraged to join our faith community? Thomas was welcomed by Jesus. Don’t we see more of ourselves in this doubting Thomas who wanted to see for himself?

Thomas says: “My Lord and my God!” but that is not the end of the story. Later on, the disciples still don’t recognize Jesus’ presence. They hesitate to answer questions about faith because they are afraid to say: I don’t know the answer! They reach for faith but don’t quite make it. Like Thomas, they don’t “believe” until they eat with their hands–share a meal. Only then are their eyes opened.

I am healed by the message in John’s story, because the story invites us in. We weren’t there. We didn’t see. We are all like Thomas. We are included in the story that we often feel left out of. We’re encouraged to see, hear, touch, smell, and taste. It’s understood that we will have doubt and be skeptical. We are not rebuked–we are blessed with wholeness, too.

On Tuesday, at Won Buddhist Temple the silence was a blessed wholeness.

buddhist2I could even hear the breathing of the person next to me.

Once the chanting started, the silence remained in my mind. The prayer bowl resonated all the way through the wooden floor.

buddhist1

That afternoon, the Wisconsin students carried signs protesting gun violence in Philadelphia: Stop straw buying! Halt illegal gun sales!

SAMSUNG

They stood on Torresdale Ave. and hundreds of cars passed, honking their loud approval. The students even engaged the gun shop owner in conversation.

At Philly food SHARE’s warehouse, near the East Falls section of Philadelphia, the students packed boxes full of perishables and organized shipments for soup kitchens and shelters.

phillyshare

On the decorated walls were murals and their motto:

“Do Good. Feel Good. Eat Good.”
phillyshare2

On Thursday, snow was on the ground and a chill was in the air. But the students were enthused to be in West Philadelphia to work with Urban Tree Connection.
SAMSUNG urbantree2They cleaned up trash, removed dead brush and prepared the vacant lot to become an urban garden–a safe and functional place that could inspire and promote positive human interaction.

SAMSUNGOn Thursday evening, at the Mosque of Shaikh M. R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, a Sufi community, our mouths were filled with food.
bawa

One of the Muslim student leaders led us in the ritual of ablutions.

ablutions2The water trickled down our arms and covered our feet, refreshing us.

ablutions

Another female Muslim student from Saudi Arabia carefully and patiently helped others put on their head scarves.

scarves2 scarves

Upstairs in the mosque, the prayers began to echo.

Bowing, hands in the air. Arabic prayer-songs. Embraces.

mosque2

On Friday, we journeyed to the University of Temple part of Broad Street and visited the Church of the Advocate; immediately, our senses were overwhelmed by the Gothic cathedral and the artwork everywhere.
SAMSUNG advocate2 SAMSUNGBut our noses told us something else was going on in the kitchen. Church of the Advocate serves an average of 1,000 people each month, Monday- Friday. Anyone can get a hot meal. One man, proud of this effort and grateful for it, stood outside in the cold and shook all 50 hands in our group, asking each person’s name.

The chef and volunteers in the kitchen laughed as they shared about their work.

advocate3

We smelled the food.

Then we smelled cleaning supplies.

SAMSUNG

We found ourselves in the Gothic sanctuary once again—this time helping their sexton to clean.

That evening, at the Baha’i Center of Philadelphia, we sat at the table to eat and talk. Devotions began and people of different ages read sacred scriptures. A song and then a prayer.

bahai

And plenty of laughter. Stories. Embraces and pictures.

smiles smiles2Smiles.

smiles4 smiles3

 Our last gathering as a whole group was on Saturday afternoon at St. Barbara’s Catholic Church, before the long bus trip to Wisconsin. A closing time of sharing and challenge and reflection. Some students verbally shared how they expected to use their new-found understandings to be leaders or to stand up for others. Some shared that their experiences were transcendent, powerful, even life-changing. Embraces and pictures and laughter and some tears.

closing2 closing

Friends, this experience has left me wondering:

What would it be like if we started acting more like Thomas?

What if we expected more out of our sacred stories and our religious practices?

What if we see, hear, touch, smell, taste, and live our sacred stories?

What if we choose to encounter and engage people who are different?

What if this Jesus, who taught that God’s Spirit was in everyone; who taught that forgiveness was given to us and required of us; what if this Jesus, who offered wholeness, even to the ones who still doubted and needed to touch, see, hear, taste, and smell; what if this Jesus were real in our stories and in our lives?

What if sacred stories became part of our stories?

What if we expected more out of our faith practice—that it would actually make us better people?

May it be so.


[1] What is Pluralism? Diane Eck.

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